Battle of Albemarle Sound

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Battle of Albemarle Sound
Civil War on the North Carolina Coast

Battle of Albemarle Sound 

Other Names: Battle of Batchelor’s Bay

Location: Chowan County and Washington County

Campaign: Operations Against Plymouth (April-May 1864)

Date(s): May 5, 1864

Principal Commanders: Capt. Melancton Smith [US]; Cdr. J. W. Cooke [CS]

Forces Engaged: 8 gunboats [US]; Confederate ram [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 88 total

Result(s): Inconclusive

Albemarle Sound Civil War History
Battle of Albemarle Sound.jpg
Battle of Albemarle Sound

Battle of Albemarle Sound, North Carolina
Battle of Albemarle Sound Marker.jpg
Civil War Battle of Albemarle Sound

Summary: James W. Cooke, commander of the Ironclad ram CSS Albemarle, sailed out of Plymouth in early May 1864. Steaming south toward New Bern, Cooke ran into the Union fleet, commanded by Captain Melancton Smith, at the mouth of Albemarle Sound, Smith with an advantage in numbers could do little damage to the single Confederate ship. Shots glanced and bounced off the Albemarle's sides. The USS Sassacus next rammed the Albemarle at top speed and caused some significant damage. The Albemarle began taking on water but the Sassacus had also sustained damage from the impact and a single shot that had burst one of its boilers scalding the crew. The rest of the Union fleet managed to recapture a converted steamer called the Bombshell. The Sassacus, now too damaged to even function, drifted down river while the Albemarle had sustained enough damage causing it to break and make way back to Plymouth.

The battle itself was inconclusive, but the events that followed had more decisive results. The Albemarle had held its own against greater numbers but the damages caused during the battle had forced the ironclad into port for the next several months, thus preventing it from being used in General Hoke's planned assault on New Bern. Hoke forced the campaign at New Bern, but without the Albemarle, only to be recalled to Virginia to assist in the defense of the Confederate capital of Richmond during the nearly ten month Siege of Petersburg. The events in October had a greater impact on the situation when William B. Cushing led a naval raid and detonated a torpedo beneath the hull. The removal of Hoke's force and the destruction of the Albemarle allowed both Plymouth and Washington, North Carolina, to fall back into Union hands.

CSS Albemarle ironclad ram
CSS Albemarle ironclad ram.jpg
Ironclad ram CSS Albemarle

History: The Battle of Albemarle Sound was an inconclusive naval engagement, May 5, 1864, along the coast of North Carolina during the American Civil War, between three Confederate warships, including the Ironclad ram CSS Albemarle, and a Union squadron of eight Navy gunboats, led by USS Mattabesett. The action ended indecisively, a draw, due to the sunset.

On May 5, CSS Albemarle (aka CSS ram Albemarle) fought eight blockading Union ships to a draw at the mouth of the Roanoke River. Federals recaptured the converted steamer Bombshell. USS Sassacus was badly damaged. Two weeks after the Battle of Plymouth (April 17-20, 1864), in which the CSS Albemarle played a major role, the Confederate ironclad met eight Union ships in Albemarle Sound. (See North Carolina Outer Banks: Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound.) During the Civil War practically every ironclad warship was built in the traditional shipyard, but the CSS Albemarle was constructed in a humble Southern cornfield.

On May 5, 1864, the CSS Albemarle weighed anchor and proceeded down the Roanoke River for New Bern. On entering the sound, the ironclad, under command of Captain J. W. Cooke, and her escort vessels were attacked by four double-ended steamers and three smaller gunboats under Captain Melancton Smith. The Albemarle opened attack late in the day. Leading the first line of attack was the Union flagship, the Mattabesett. The Albemarle returned her fire, destroying the launch and cutting away some of the standing and running rigging. The steamer Sassacus struck the ironclad at top speed and stuck fast. The crew of the Albemarle then sent a hundred-pound shot through the starboard boiler of the Union vessel and into her wardroom. The scalded men managed to free the ship and they drifted out of range. Both sides then withdrew. The Albemarle struggled to return to Plymouth for repairs. Only by throwing butter, lard, and bacon into the boilers was it possible for the crew of the Confederate ironclad to raise enough steam to return to Plymouth. The encounter is also known as the “Battle of Batchelor’s Bay,” although the events took place in the sound some distance east of the bay.

CSS Albemarle v. United States Navy
CSS Albemarle.jpg
Battle of Albemarle Sound

Analysis: In April 1864, Confederate forces, with the aid of the new Confederate Ironclad ram CSS Albemarle, forced the surrender of the Union garrison at Plymouth, forcing them back and helping the infantry capture the town. Robert Hoke, commanding Confederate forces in North Carolina, encouraged by his success at Plymouth attempted to retake New Bern, in May, which had been under Union control since early in 1862. For his proposed attack on New Bern, Hoke again sought assistance from the CSS Albemarle, which had been a decisive factor in the Battle of Plymouth. En route, however, were eight Union ships in Albemarle Sound under the command of Melancton Smith.

James W. Cooke sailed the ram Albemarle out to attack the Federal gunboats on May 5. He was accompanied by two unarmored gunboats, the Bombshell and Cotton Plant. They engaged four Union ships, the USS Miami, Mattabesett, Sassacus and Wyalusing, mounting altogether more than 60 cannon. The Albemarle opened the fight, her first fire hitting six men on the Mattabesett. The Confederate then maneuvered into ram, as she had done in the previous fight. However the Mattabesett was able to deftly avoid this charge, and the Sassacus unleashed a volley directly into the Albemarle's side, but the shell just bounced off the solid ironclad. When she turned her fire to the Bombshell she found a much easier target, and soon forced the unarmored gunboat to surrender.

Seeing that his guns were useless against the Albermarle, Lieutenant Commander Francis Roe of the Sassacus decided to ram. She struck the Confederate vessel squarely, but instead of punching a whole in her and sending her to the bottem, the ships became twisted and entangled. Cooke ordered the Albermarle to fire her guns, and at such a close range it was impossible to miss. Two shells smashed through the USS Sassacus, and one of them smashed her boiler which send scalding steam through the ship. The Sassacus broke away and drifted out of the fight, unable to sail without her boiler. The USS Miami continued the fight, but was unable to catch the Albermarle in a net or hit her with a spar torpedo. The CSS Albemarle had sustained some damage in the fighting, and eventually returned up the river to Plymouth. Although she had not gained a conclusive victory, she was successful in disabling one ship, and engaging the squadron without incurring serious damage. For months she controlled a large section of the river, as the Federals were unwilling to risk attacking the Confederate armorclad.

(Sources and related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: Confederate Ironclad 1861-65 (New Vanguard). Description: The creation of a Confederate ironclad fleet was a miracle of ingenuity, improvisation and logistics. Surrounded by a superior enemy fleet, Confederate designers adapted existing vessels or created new ones from the keel up with the sole purpose of breaking the naval stranglehold on the nascent country. Continued below...

Her ironclads were built in remote cornfields, on small inland rivers or in naval yards within sight of the enemy. The result was an unorthodox but remarkable collection of vessels, which were able to contest the rivers and coastal waters of the South for five years. This title explains how these vessels worked, how they were constructed, how they were manned and how they fought.

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Recommended Reading: A History of the Confederate Navy (Hardcover). From Publishers Weekly: One of the most prominent European scholars of the Civil War weighs in with a provocative revisionist study of the Confederacy's naval policies. For 27 years, University of Genoa history professor Luraghi (The Rise and Fall of the Plantation South) explored archival and monographic sources on both sides of the Atlantic to develop a convincing argument that the deadliest maritime threat to the South was not, as commonly thought, the Union's blockade but the North's amphibious and river operations. Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory, the author shows, thus focused on protecting the Confederacy's inland waterways and controlling the harbors vital for military imports. Continued below…

As a result, from Vicksburg to Savannah to Richmond, major Confederate ports ultimately were captured from the land and not from the sea, despite the North's overwhelming naval strength. Luraghi highlights the South's ingenuity in inventing and employing new technologies: the ironclad, the submarine, the torpedo. He establishes, however, that these innovations were the brainchildren of only a few men, whose work, although brilliant, couldn't match the resources and might of a major industrial power like the Union. Nor did the Confederate Navy, weakened through Mallory's administrative inefficiency, compensate with an effective command system. Enhanced by a translation that retains the verve of the original, Luraghi's study is a notable addition to Civil War maritime history. Includes numerous photos.

 

Recommended Reading: Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads. Description: William N. Still's book is rightfully referred to as the standard of Confederate Naval history. Accurate and objective accounts of the major and even minor engagements with Union forces are combined with extensive background information. This edition has an enlarged section of historical drawings and sketches. Mr. Still explains the political background that gave rise to the Confederate Ironclad program and his research is impeccable. An exhaustive literature listing rounds out this excellent book. While strictly scientific, the inclusion of historical eyewitness accounts and the always fluent style make this book a joy to read. This book is a great starting point.

 

Recommended Reading:  Storm over Carolina: The Confederate Navy's Struggle for Eastern North Carolina. Description: The struggle for control of the eastern waters of North Carolina during the War Between the States was a bitter, painful, and sometimes humiliating one for the Confederate navy. No better example exists of the classic adage, "Too little, too late." Burdened by the lack of adequate warships, construction facilities, and even ammunition, the South's naval arm fought bravely and even recklessly to stem the tide of the Federal invasion of North Carolina from the raging Atlantic. Storm Over Carolina is the account of the Southern navy's struggle in North Carolina waters and it is a saga of crushing defeats interspersed with moments of brilliant and even spectacular victories. It is also the story of dogged Southern determination and incredible perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. Continued below...

For most of the Civil War, the navigable portions of the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Chowan, and Pasquotank rivers were occupied by Federal forces. The Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, as well as most of the coastal towns and counties, were also under Union control. With the building of the river ironclads, the Confederate navy at last could strike a telling blow against the invaders, but they were slowly overtaken by events elsewhere. With the war grinding to a close, the last Confederate vessel in North Carolina waters was destroyed. William T. Sherman was approaching from the south, Wilmington was lost, and the Confederacy reeled as if from a mortal blow. For the Confederate navy, and even more so for the besieged citizens of eastern North Carolina, these were stormy days indeed. Storm Over Carolina describes their story, their struggle, their history.

 

Recommended Reading: Ironclads and Columbiads: The Coast (The Civil War in North Carolina) (456 pages). Description: Ironclads and Columbiads covers some of the most important battles and campaigns in the state. In January 1862, Union forces began in earnest to occupy crucial points on the North Carolina coast. Within six months, Union army and naval forces effectively controlled coastal North Carolina from the Virginia line south to present-day Morehead City. Union setbacks in Virginia, however, led to the withdrawal of many federal soldiers from North Carolina, leaving only enough Union troops to hold a few coastal strongholds—the vital ports and railroad junctions. The South during the Civil War, moreover, hotly contested the North’s ability to maintain its grip on these key coastal strongholds.

 

Recommended Reading: The Civil War in the Carolinas (Hardcover). Description: Dan Morrill relates the experience of two quite different states bound together in the defense of the Confederacy, using letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports. He shows how the innovative operations of the Union army and navy along the coast and in the bays and rivers of the Carolinas affected the general course of the war as well as the daily lives of all Carolinians. He demonstrates the "total war" for North Carolina's vital coastal railroads and ports. In the latter part of the war, he describes how Sherman's operation cut out the heart of the last stronghold of the South. Continued below...

The author offers fascinating sketches of major and minor personalities, including the new president and state governors, Generals Lee, Beauregard, Pickett, Sherman, D.H. Hill, and Joseph E. Johnston. Rebels and abolitionists, pacifists and unionists, slaves and freed men and women, all influential, all placed in their context with clear-eyed precision. If he were wielding a needle instead of a pen, his tapestry would offer us a complete picture of a people at war. Midwest Book Review: The Civil War in the Carolinas by civil war expert and historian Dan Morrill (History Department, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historical Society) is a dramatically presented and extensively researched survey and analysis of the impact the American Civil War had upon the states of North Carolina and South Carolina, and the people who called these states their home. A meticulous, scholarly, and thoroughly engaging examination of the details of history and the sweeping change that the war wrought for everyone, The Civil War In The Carolinas is a welcome and informative addition to American Civil War Studies reference collections.

Sources: John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (1963); William G. Trotter, Ironclads and Columbiads: The Civil War in North Carolina, Volume III, The Coast (1989); Robert G. Elliott, Ironclads of the Roanoke: Gilbert Elliott’s Albemarle (1994); State Library of North Carolina; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; National Park Service; North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

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